- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 7, 2008

ELMONT, N.Y. | Today, two saviors will attempt to bring sports back to the days of “Guys and Dolls” and smoke-filled arenas.

Horse racing and boxing used to dominate the American sports scene. Sports columnists like Jimmy Cannon and Red Smith wrote about baseball, boxing and horse racing with a little college football mixed in.

The landscape obviously has changed over the last 50 years. Boxing might as well be shown on newsreels, and the only time people pay attention to horse racing is when a horse wins the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, setting the stage for Triple Crown anticipation and speculation before the Belmont Stakes.

Big Brown has done just that, and even in a weak field - perhaps with the main challenger, Casino Drive, out of the race with bruised hoof - horse racing will be back in the spotlight again Saturday if Big Brown becomes the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

A few hours later and about a hundred miles away, another athlete will try to make people care about his sport again. Middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik will step in the ring at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., to defend his title against Gary Lockett.

Pavlik is not vying for any triple crown, but his presence and success in the sport are just as rare as the horse racing glory trifecta - he is an undefeated fighter who knocks people out (29 of his 33 wins by KO), he is a fighter who gets knocked down and gets back up and he is an American white middleweight champion.

Triple Crown winners are commonplace compared to Kelly Pavlik.

Horse racing and boxing may not hold a lofty place in the sports market anymore, but that doesn’t mean either spectacle can’t capture fans with the right star.

In Big Brown, horse racing has a star in the right place to bring the sport the Triple Crown it so desperately wants - but he may not be the right star.

Big Brown is being embraced like a thorn bush. He has no particular charm surrounding him - particularly the people surrounding him. Trainer Rick Dutrow has a long list of suspensions and reports of illegal drug use for horses, and owner Michael Iavarone has a record of shady securities deals.

Now there are few people without flaws in horse racing, but generally, we like our horse stories to include lovable rogues and hard-luck horses. Four years ago, the nation couldn’t get enough of Smarty Jones, the horse who nearly died in a training accident and had a small-town, West Virginia trainer and an owner in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank.

When jockey Edgar Prado rode Birdstone, a 36-1 long shot, to a Belmont win four years ago, edging out Smarty Jones, Prado apologized for winning the race and spoiling the storybook finish everyone wanted.

That was the horse that should have won the Triple Crown. If someone upsets Big Brown on Saturday, you won’t hear any apologies.

Pavlik, though, is a savior of a different color. He is Seabiscuit, a working-class fighter from Youngstown, Ohio, who stays in his parents’ modest two-bedroom house while he prepares to fight and still has the same trainer he started with when he was 9 years old - a trainer who still seals driveways on the side.

Like Big Brown, Pavlik has a weak field facing him tonight. Lockett is a 10-1 underdog, but an early knockout win by Pavlik will serve the required purpose - getting fans interested in a fighter they can root for who will be worth their time and money - something fight fans often can only find these day from watching films of classic bouts.

What happens next, though, for these saviors? If Big Brown does win Saturday and capture the Triple Crown, it likely will launch a period of newfound interest in horse racing, but it may not last long if Big Brown does not run in the Breeders’ Cup later this year.

Also, what will the story be once the Triple Crown winner is crowned? For many years - 11 times since 1978 - the story has been will this finally be the horse that does it? So what happens next year? Will people care as much to watch another horse try it again 12 months later?

If Pavlik wins, though, his next stage could be an international one against popular Welsh fighter Joe Calzaghe - a major fight that the likes of Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon would love if they still were roaming the press box.

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